Along with the Eastern Himalayas, the Western Ghats host Indiaâ€™s richest wilderness in 13 national parks and several sanctuaries. Recognised by UNESCO as one of the worldâ€™s eight most important biodiversity hotspots, these forested hills are also source to numerous rivers, including Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery.
Spread across six states all along the western coast, this pristine landscape has been subject to thoughtless development â€” mining, hydel projects, plantations and tourism. So environmentalists cheered when the Ministry of Environment and Forests set up in March 2010 an expert panel under ecologist Madhav Gadgil to find a strategy for conserving these Ghats. But hope gave way to scepticism soon after Gadgil placed his report in August 2011. Caught between the exacting recommendations of its own panel and stubborn resistance from the industry and the states, the ministry continued to dither for nearly a year.
Then, in August last year, the ministry constituted yet another panel under Planning Commission member and astrophysicist Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan to examine the Gadgil report, consult the stakeholders and suggest how to implement it in â€śthe most effective and holistic mannerâ€ť.
Many read the move as an attempt to device a compromise formula. Their fears came true when Kasturirangan submitted his report on 17 April, identifying roughly 37 percent of the Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). Since then, the Kasturirangan panel and the ministry have been accused of undermining the Gadgil report, which marked out 60 percent of the Western Ghats as the highest-priority Ecologically Sensitive Zone (ESZ).
While Kasturiranganâ€™s High-Level Working Group (HLWG) has indeed moved away from Gadgilâ€™s Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) â€” with the caveat that â€śenvironmentally sound development cannot preclude livelihood and economic options for this regionâ€¦ the answer will not lie in removing these economic options, but in providing better incentives to move them towards greener and more sustainable practicesâ€ť â€” the gap between their recommendations may not be as wide as it seems.
To begin with, Gadgilâ€™s Western Ghats is smaller than that of Kasturiranganâ€™s. While this forested hill range runs parallel to the Arabian Sea for nearly 1,500 km from Gujaratâ€™s Tapi river in the north to just short of Kanyakumari in the south, there has been no standard definition of its east-west width, which varies from 10 to 210 km. In the absence of a consensus on the precise boundaries, the Gadgil panel went by forest types above a certain altitude to define the Western Ghats landscape across 1,29,037 sq km.
Gadgilâ€™s report proposed to declare this entire landscape as ESA, creating three ESZs within it. He prescribed that the existing sanctuaries and ESZ-1 would together cover 60 percent of this landscape. The 25 percent lowest priority areas would be marked as ESZ-3 to allow all developmental activities with precautions. The remaining 15 percent area would become ESZ-2. For example, while no mining would be allowed within ESZ- 1, existing mines could continue in ESZ-2 with a moratorium on new licences. In ESZ-3, new mines could come up.
The Kasturirangan panel, on the other hand, adopted the criteria followed by the Western Ghats Development Programme of the Planning Commission and identified 188 talukas as its Western Ghats landscape, which worked out to 1,64,280 sq km. He marked 37 percent of this stretch as ESA where hazardous industries, thermal plants or mines would not be allowed. In effect, the restriction level of Kasturiranganâ€™s ESA corresponds to that of Gadgilâ€™s ESZ-1.
Now, according to the Gadgil report, the ESZ-1 areas add up to approximately 77,000 sq km (60 percent of 1,29,037 sq km). Kasturiranganâ€™s ESA, on the other hand, accounts for around 60,000 sq km (37 percent of 1,64,280 sq km). That is a reduction of 17,000 sq km in the top priority segment.